Shafqat Munir Ahmad has introduced the notion of social responsibility to journalists in Pakistan, in an effort to increase the amount of space devoted to pressing social concerns. He has established several research centers dedicated to democratic governance, women and children’s rights, environmental sustainability, and other social issues, and uses them to provide journalists with the information and training they need to proactively report on vulnerable segments of society. He aims to create a functioning interface between journalists and leaders in civil society, so that both parties can effectively network and share information with one another.
The New Idea
By introducing social responsibility to journalists in Pakistan, Shafqat provides them with the information, training, and contacts they need to proactively report on the country’s most neglected segments of society. After years of government control, Pakistan’s under-trained media is now consumed by stories that are either purely sensationalist or politically motivated. In response, Shafqat works to bridge the gap between journalists and civil society by creating a space for members of both circles to share information: Converting expert findings and civic understanding directly into public information. By establishing an increase in relevant media coverage, Shafqat aims to mobilize public opinion to better support women, children, farmers, and other vulnerable groups in Pakistan.
Shafqat has established four centers through his organization, Journalists for Democracy and Human Rights (JDHR). The centers each focus on a particular field and are designed to bring journalists together with leaders in civil society and academia, to sensitize them to particular issues relating to democratic norms, people-centric governance, poverty, and sustainable human development. Shafqat’s program is designed to educate journalists on key social issues and to strengthen their ability to promote a rights-based approach to social policy without disturbing regular political news reporting. While his primary focus is on training journalists, Shafqat also instructs participating civil society organizations on program promotion, media campaigns, and the creation of media information kits.
Shafqat has also established a media think-tank to complement his training efforts, conducting independent research on democracy, human rights, and media developments. In this capacity, JDHR has produced in-depth studies ranging from forest management to human trafficking, which, along with collected articles and background from key sources, are used as the basis for its media training programs.
In recent years, Pakistan has seen a significant rise in media conglomerates and a general shift toward targeting more affluent markets. This change has a brought an increase in “sensationalist” news coverage—featuring major trials, political scandals, and the like; with a corresponding decline in investigative journalism. As a result, the vast majority of the country’s news coverage has become either routine or reactionary: Gone is emphasis on “the people's right to know” and other aims central to a responsible and effective media. Moreover, one of the many lingering effects of government control over the media has been that many of Pakistan’s journalists and media institutions remain untrained and underdeveloped. What little time is devoted to social issues is typically superficial, as journalists lack the contacts and understanding to provide a nuanced perspective.
While corporate and political interests have played a growing role in media allocation, most civil society organizations have fallen behind their political and business counterparts. Due to the speed of change occurring in today’s communication technologies, most COs lack the knowledge and means to effectively leverage emerging trends in mass media. As a result, coverage of social and development issues have been sidelined, placing civil society at a considerable disadvantage.
JDHR is a departure from common journalists’ unions and other similar associations which place most of their emphasis on the welfare and rights of journalists. JDHR’s strategy is to make journalists proactive about reporting on social issues without disturbing mainstream political news reporting. Rather than demand that all news media undergo a dramatic shift, Shafqat encourages journalists to devote 20 percent of their coverage space to issues involving citizens’ rights and well-being. His focus is on “perspective-building,” which aims to build a sense of social responsibility among journalists without undermining media houses profits.
JDHR adopted a multi-pronged strategy for journalists, government information officers, and journalism students, to build their capacity, skills, and perspective. His program emphasizes ways to report development issues and alternatives, stressing a rights-based development approach. He places explicit emphasis on those socially vulnerable, such as women, children, minorities, farmers, and consumers—first exposing their lack of coverage in media, and then teaching participants how to change it. To support these efforts, he has built a media-civil society interface, with events designed to enable civil society activists to share information and knowledge directly with journalists. JDHR also has a program for training civil society activists in program promotion, media campaigns, and preparing media information packages and kits.
Shafqat has constructed a complementary public interest media think-tank and research unit of JDHR to conduct research on democratic norms, development discourses, people centric governance and human rights, sustainable human development, poverty and livelihood, and media developments. As part of the think-tank activity, JDHR focuses on a theme each year, and publishes information and knowledge to mobilize public opinion around it. In 2008 JDHR conducted detailed research on development and governance.
Shafqat has based all research and networking programs out of four centers and two forums, including the Center for Democracy and Human Rights, Center for Trade, Economics, Environment and Development, South Asia Center for Economic Journalists, South Asia Policy Centre-London (regional headquarters of JDHR), Child Rights Media Forum, and Women Journalists Forum. With an in-depth focus on a particular field, each center networks among journalists, academia, and civil society.
To extend his reach, Shafqat has developed close strategic alliances with a variety of existing journalist associations and advocacy organizations. After years as a reporter and communications professor, Shafqat was well-known and respected in the journalist community when he began to reach out to partners. Because JDHR’s success depends on its staying constantly informed of the latest trends and changes in social policy, he has partnered with numerous civil society organizations working on trade and the environment, human trafficking, children’s rights, and a myriad of other issues. These partnerships have delivered considerable results. With the help of two prominent Asian media networks, Shafqat recently led an extensive advocacy campaign around human trafficking, migration, and HIV/AIDS, which led to a rise in coverage. At the national level, JDHR worked with the National Commission on Child Welfare and Development to come up with a code of conduct for media covering children’s issues. This code has been adopted by the Pakistani government and presented at the UN as a step toward improved protection of children’s rights.
Shafqat has trained more than 1,200 journalists to better report on developmental issues. He also plans to hold policy-media advocacy seminars on media freedoms and peoples’ right to know, and similarly, on the right to dignified living. Having focused on integrating the media with civil society, Shafqat is looking toward government reform to translate his gains in media coverage into policy change. He will set up a system to monitor the four pillars of state through a rights-based lens to bridge the gap between media and policymaking.
Born in a small town in southern Punjab in 1962, Shafqat has long been an ardent human and civil rights activist. As a student during the military regime of the 1980s, Shafqat was an active member of the National Student’s Federation and protested the ban on student unions. He wrote revolutionary poems motivating students to challenge the dictatorship, and wrote and distributed pamphlets against the discriminatory policies of the regime. Shafqat began to work in the media in the late 1980s, just after military rule and following years of rampant censorship that restricted freedom of expression. Drawn since childhood to the causes of neglected and oppressed people, Shafqat worked with News International, one of the most circulated and respected English language newspapers in Pakistan. He worked with a team of journalists for six years; educating them about social issues, and in 1994, established JDHR.
Shafqat has rich background as a media practitioner and academic. He has worked with state run radio, television, and print media. He is a member of the Faculty of the Department of Mass Communications at the University of Arid Agriculture, and the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad. Shafqat has worked with Pakistan Television, Dutch Television Vaandag2, and Japan’s Fuji Television. He has covered many of the most historically significant events of South Asia, including the last days of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the 2004 tsunami, and the devastating earthquake of 2005.
Shafqat did his Master’s in Political Science and earned a Post-Graduate Diploma in Journalism from Islamia University Bahawalpur. He is working on a PhD at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad, with a dissertation on the “Portrayal of Vulnerable Segment of Pakistani Society in Print Media”. Shafqat is accredited with the Press Information Department of the Government of Pakistan as a freelance journalist, and contributes reports, columns, and op-ed pieces to The News and other publications. Due to his long history and active participation in media, he is considered a respected journalist and has number of journalist friends and students in and outside Pakistan. Shafqat is a prolific writer and his articles and papers are published in leading newspapers, magazines, and research journals internationally and in Pakistan on socioeconomic development, human rights, peace, and sustainable development.